At a Crossroad

I just attended three board meetings in three weeks. At each, I heard the same phrase from the board chair or the president: “We are at a crossroad,” he said (the presidents and board chairs all happened to be men).

Nodding as one, the other board members all agreed with this sage observation and then moved on to the next item on the day’s agenda.

At the third board meeting, I posed a question: “If you are at a crossroad, where do the other three roads lead?”

I could see by the looks on their faces that no one had really thought about the other three roads. In fact, my question sparked a fairly long discussion that threatened to derail the carefully choreographed agenda.

After some time, we decided, as a group that the other three roads lead to:

  • Prosperity
  • Outright failure
  • Marginalization

We opined that a relatively small number of schools would find themselves on the narrow to prosperity. “A lack of resources” and “a tough marketplace” were the reasons why this road would be less traveled.

The second road, outright failure, would also be less traveled. Though at times delicate, colleges and universities are surprisingly tough and resilient. They almost never go out of business. With a nod to Mark Twain, the rumors of their impending demise are almost always exaggerated.

The third road, marginalization, however, would be wide and well-traveled. Unfortunately, we are already seeing some traffic as schools, in response to revenue shortfalls, are turning to the cost side of the ledger and reducing expenditures in staffing, co- and extracurricular activities, facility maintenance, and other areas.

While this reduction in expenditures may help balance the ledger in the near term, it almost always leads to an obvious loss of quality. In other words, marginalization. Unfortunately, marginalization almost always leads to more marginalization.

With the three roads defined the board moved on to other business.

Of course, there is another question waiting in the wings: “What are the characteristics of the schools that will prosper?”

I resisted asking that question for two reasons. First, because I knew the day’s schedule was teetering on disaster. And second, because I knew the answer.

Last year, as part of a research study, we looked at the qualities and characteristics of successful institutions. Over the course of several months we pulled together a short list of characteristics that are almost always present at successful, prosperous institutions. That list includes:

  • Great leadership
  • Strong senior team
  • A willingness to make tough decisions in a timely fashion
  • A curriculum that is in demand
  • The ability to focus on fewer ideas and execute those ideas with great verve
  • A compelling vision to attract resources (students and donated dollars (see below)
  • Board support (both political and financial)
  • The ability to raise money
  • A willingness to stay the course

Interestingly, almost none of these characteristics have anything to do with the marketplace. At the same time, they have a lot to do with how a college or university—and its leadership team—chooses to respond to the marketplace.

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